It was a run-of-the-mill antiwar gathering. The speakers: former city councilor Felix D. Arroyo, Boston University professor Howard Zinn, and Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan. The location: A congregational church in Jamaica Plain.
But the Boston Police Department took careful notes in advance of the gathering, filing an “intelligence report” in March 2007 that labeled the event a “criminal act” involving “extremists.”
Internal department documents indicate that between 2007 and 2010, police conducted surveillance on several antiwar groups that have no apparent connections to crime or terrorism — a violation of federal regulations, civil rights groups say.
The documents were obtained by the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union through a lawsuit filed in August 2011 against Boston Police. Those documents include 13 “intelligence reports” that provide details about antiwar groups — among them, the Stop the Wars Coalition, United for Justice with Peace, and Greater Boston Code Pink — along with information about their scheduled events, beliefs, political leanings, and internal dynamics. Each intelligence report is categorized by “criminal act” — either “extremists,” “civil disturbance,” or threats to domestic homeland security.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis, the Massachusetts chapters of the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild said monitoring these groups infringed on the civil rights of peaceful activists.
“This kind of monitoring of political groups is just the kind of subtle interference that threatens to chill legitimate constitutionally-protected speech,” the letter said. “When police surveillance penetrates the internal workings of peaceful organizations, some Bostonians will be less likely to exercise those fundamental rights.”
Police said Wednesday that they are reviewing the accusations asserted in that letter, but said that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center – established after Sept. 11 to focus on antiterrorism and overseen by the department – does not conduct surveillance on protest groups without reason to believe they are tied to crime or terrorism.
“The BRIC does not maintain continued surveillance or documentation on peace protest groups,” police spokeswoman Cheryl Fiandaca said in a statement. “Boston residents should confidently participate in any lawful, peaceful protest or demonstration knowing the Boston Police Department is not monitoring the events without specific information on suspected criminal activity.”
Protesters named in the reports say they are outraged, but not surprised, to learn that police have kept documents outlining their affiliations with protest groups.
“It’s appalling,” said Susan Barney, 48, of Arlington, a political activist listed in two reports. “Money is being spent to harass, spy on, and surveil the public, instead of being used for education or housing for low-income communities.”
“I don’t like being considered a homeland security threat,” said Ridgely Fuller of Waltham. “I’m like this middle-aged suburban woman who just wants to speak out against injustice and war.”
Documents show that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center — established after Sept. 11 to focus on antiterrorism and overseen by the department — does not conduct surveillance on protest groups without reason to believe they are tied to crime or terrorism.
Last December, in a letter to the ACLU, a lawyer for the Police Department blamed an error in the department’s software as the reason intelligence reports from years ago remained in the system, even though they should have been deleted. That computer glitch has since been fixed, according Fiandaca.
“The software system failed to flag the reports to be deleted,” Fiandaca said. “The system has since been updated and is under routine scrutiny to ensure it is working properly.”
The Boston Regional Intelligence Center is one of 77 “fusion centers” around the country established with funding from the Department of Homeland Security to help streamline the sharing of information between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in an attempt to combat domestic terrorism.
Recently, fusion centers have come under fire for overstepping their bounds by conducting surveillance on groups without justification. A US Senate subcommittee report released two weeks ago found that Department of Homeland Security officials found that fusion centers brought about “a lot of . . . predominantly useless information.”
“These examples they are finding now in Massachusetts are sadly not isolated examples,” Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel for The Constitution Project, a bipartisan watchdog group.
“This kind of domestic spying has failed to catch a single terrorist,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This is a waste of public resources as well as a violation of fundamental civil liberties.”
Franklin said the problems associated with fusion centers nationwide are a product of the lack of oversight and accountability in these intelligence-gathering efforts. Fusion centers such as the Regional Intelligence Center need better training to ensure that officers direct time and resources to real national security threats.
“We don’t want to abolish all fusion centers,” Franklin said. “But let’s make sure they’re focused.”
The Police Department intelligence reports go into great detail about the inner workings of Boston activist groups.
“There has been some infighting within the [United for Justice with Peace] as to whether the group should stop its antiwar actions during the election year in an effort not to harm the Democratic Party,” stated one March 2008 intelligence report.
An April 2007 report, filed under the category of domestic homeland security, discussed a protester’s political leanings: “[Name redacted] . . . stated that he is now associating more with the [International Socialist Organization] rather than local anarchist groups . . . It should be noted that traditionally the anarchists and socialists do not see eye to eye on most issues.”
Some of the reports go into vivid detail about group’s views on particular politicians or upcoming elections.
The level of detail in these reports is cause for alarm, said National Lawyers Guild chairman David Kelston. “The Boston Police Department is spending a lot of time and resources conducting surveillance and monitoring public demonstrations that pose no danger to anyone,” he said.Martine Powers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.